Reprinted with permission from Frontline Missions International. All rights reserved.
There is a spot near the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, a little marble circle that marks what the ancient Chinese believed to be the very center of the universe. Today this cosmic bulls-eye is just a place for grinning tourists to stand and have their picture taken. However, many ancient peoples had similar beliefs about their realm being at the center of things. Why else, for example, would one say, “All roads lead to Rome”? While it is an interesting idea that the center of the universe is located in Beijing or Rome, I am not convinced. In fact, I think the chair I am sitting in writing this article may just as likely be the true center of the universe! Seriously though, when it comes to missions, I am afraid that for too long, many of us here in America have behaved as if we were at the center of the universe.
In olden days, designating a particular place as the center of the universe was easy because to many ancients, their world was flat and relatively small. After a whole “new world” was discovered, though, little maps grew into great globes, and centers were more difficult to designate. Similarly, in the missions realm, the world is very different from the one that William Carey, Adoniram Judson, and Hudson Taylor lived in.
These men and other missionary trailblazers inspired their generation to answer the Great Call. In the 19th and 20th centuries, missionary ranks were filled mostly by those from the English-speaking world: British, American, and Canadian. As they crossed continents and cultures with the Gospel, though, things changed. People of every nation, tongue, and tribe were saved through faith in Christ. Churches sprang up, and Christians in many lands began sharing the Gospel with their own countrymen.
In the 20th century, political boundaries grew dramatically (there were 55 independent countries in 1900 and 192 countries by the end of the century) and so also grew the political barriers to western missionaries. Yet, not surprisingly, the advance of the Gospel was unhindered. In the past quarter century, tremendous growth in churches has taken place in parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Of course, the largest growth has been in China in the past twenty years, through the house church movement. Today there are tens of millions of believers that God brought to Himself largely apart from any western influence. While in the West we could pray for China but not go, behind the Bamboo Curtain the Lord was doing a marvelous work through the Chinese themselves—surpassing in scope and fervency all work previously done in China and producing a truly indigenous Church.
Missionary ranks are, therefore, much more diverse than in the past. In many countries indigenous churches are not only firmly planted but some, such as Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, and Ukraine (to name a few), are also sending out missionaries to other countries. Of course, the United States continues to be a driving force in missions today, but others are driving, too, and those who are too poor are riding bicycles or walking—but all are answering our Lord’s order, “Go ye.”
And so the center of the missions world has shifted a bit. How should American missionaries, mission boards, and the pastors and churches who support them relate to Christian workers in other countries, given the differences between us? It should be a relationship that is not based on our money or our expertise, but one that is characterized by respect and humility. Our approach must be culturally-sensitive and our attitude biblically-balanced.
Naturally, “Go ye into all the world and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19, KJV) means that missions involves working with other people. Often they are Christians who are very different from us—who have strange names, speak in strange tongues and eat strange food. We usually refer to such people as “nationals,” but they are really just people. When we talk about working with nationals—that is, Christians from other cultures—there may be suspicions, concerns over accountability, and differences over methods and practice.
Such responses actually go back to the earliest days of the Church. As Acts unfolds, the “original” Christians (Jewish believers who thought Jerusalem was the center of the universe) grew concerned about the Gentile Christians. Some wanted to impose their Mosaic culture on these Greek and barbarian converts. The controversy which Acts 15:2 describes as “no small dissension and disputation” was so great that Paul and Barnabas had to come off the field and go to Jerusalem to explain the situation. Peter and the other leaders at Jerusalem wisely saw that the Gospel was about Christ and not culture. Rather than impose Jewish legal strictures on these non-Jewish believers, they simply outlined a few simple requirements for Gentile believers for the purpose of purity and unity in the Body of Christ. Then Paul and Barnabas got back to work!
This was not an isolated incident. “Cultural clashes” between Christians in the early Church are recorded throughout Acts. In fact, Paul wrote Galatians in order to deal with the issue in the strongest possible terms. Yet misunderstandings among Christians of different backgrounds, and the desire to impose cultural preferences along with the Gospel work, are just as real in the 21st century as it was in the 1st.
Every church has its own culture that it cherishes—one shaped by tradition and the hand prints that mold a ministry over time. Culture provides a level of unity within a congregation that is important. It is only when a particular culture is elevated as the biblical standard for all Christians and imposed on others that the culture is out of bounds. Just imagine how most of us would respond if a Christian of the Krung tribe in southeast Asia told us to leave our shoes and pews outside the church building. We would probably politely tell him to go home! That example is really not much different than when Western missionaries insist on suits and ties or learning English in order to read the King James Bible. Planting an American-style church in foreign soil usually lasts only as long as the missionary and his money. Such church plants, if they survive, are often fragile and fruitless.
The apostle Paul had a different approach. In I Corinthians 9:20, he said, “Unto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without the law, as without law…that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men that I might by all means save some. And this I do for the Gospel’s sake.” And so in the pattern of Paul, in Egypt I must never cross my legs while seated before the congregation; while among the hill tribes of Cambodia, I sit cross-legged on the floor while preaching. When I worship with Christians in Pakistan, we clap as we sing, keeping time with a tabla drum. Despite grenade bombings of their churches by Muslim fanatics, their songs and faces are filled with joy and not dread. When I pray with my Christian brothers and sisters in Central Asia, we hold our hands open. Using a tabla with singing or lifting up our hands in prayer is part of their worship culture—just as using a piano, sitting in pews, and mixing men and women together in church is part of our culture in the West. Within Biblical bounds, no worship culture is better than another—they are just different. These are refreshing reminders that the Gospel is for all people in all places.
Working with national pastors, evangelists, and others in the ministry is fruitful and effective. These Christian workers don’t have to learn a new language, adapt to the nuances of a new culture, or spend years on deputation. It is a privilege to come along side them in “joint ventures” starting Bible schools, planting churches, developing radio broadcasts, publishing Gospel literature, and laying strategies together for the further advance of the Gospel.
It is often the case that Americans may have more formal Bible education than Christian workers in other lands, so we may be called on to help provide Bible training to such men and women. But we must never confuse a seminary degree with superiority. Yes, as a minister of the Gospel we should be “apt to teach,” but we should also be “apt to learn” as well. Over the years I have learned so much about prayer, faith, and the power of the Gospel from Christians who were barely literate. They have no credentials, but they have Christ - and much to teach us about Him in often profound and practical ways. Therefore, sometimes we teach—and sometimes we are taught. We are not “the boss”; we are just fellow slaves serving the real Boss.
Amos’ question, “Can two walk together except they be agreed?” answers itself. Clearly two walking together don’t have to agree on everything. They just have to agree to walk together—to go in the same direction. When working with nationals there must be no compromise of the Gospel; but if there is agreement on direction, on the fundamentals, on majoring on the majors and keeping the minors in their place, the relationship will grow into a partnership and then a friendship. President Reagan used to have a plaque on his desk that read, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished so long as no one cares who gets the credit.” When it comes to missions and partnering with nationals, the same is true, except it must be modified—“so long as Christ gets the credit.”
Dr. Tim Keesee is director of Frontline Missions International. For nearly 20 years Frontline Missions International has worked among people in areas of war, persecution, and poverty, primarily in restricted-access countries, seeking to strengthen the Church, give voice to persecuted Christians, and preach and publish the Good News. Tim is the author of numerous books and articles on history, politics, and missions, and he is the executive producer of the missions’ documentary series, Dispatches from the Front.